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Benga tunes that 'immortalised' William Ruto in vote-rich Mt Kenya region

John DeMathew belts out a number at a rally in Thika. [John Muchucha, Standard]

As the country approached the General Election, Mount Kenya region was a battleground for Kenya Kwanza’s William Ruto and Raila Odinga of Azimio la Umoja.

This region has, since 1997, not given Raila any significant vote. However, three factors in 2022 were promising for Baba: support from President Uhuru Kenyatta, the choice of Martha Karua as his running mate, and the fact that in 2002, Raila said Kibaki Tosha.

They did not know that, among other factors, the late Benga musician immortalised Ruto in the region using his music, some of which debuted posthumously as recently as 2022. 

We’re familiar with Emmanuel Musindi’s Azimio campaign signature song Lelo ni Lelo; 2017 Nasa’s Mambo Yabadilika by Helena Ken, and Amos Baraza’s Bindu Bichenjanga. We equally know the 2017 Jubilee Tano tena of Ben Githae.

While Kenya Kwanza did not have an outright signature song in 2022, we can remember their regular Sarafina movie soundtrack; Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow. All this shows that music and politics undoubtedly have synergy. 

Divorce songs

Can you remember the song that interrupted President Uhuru’s Gikuyu speech during the Sagana III conference on February 23, 2022?

It went thus, ‘Today, let’s part ways; Even if you are my brother...; Let each one now depend on themselves; The time of exploiting each other is over… Let our friendship now die; Whatever you used to give me for free, I will be buying; You are not God, and our enmity cannot make heavens and earth collide…You’re like Judas, who betrayed Jesus with thirty cents….’ 

That’s Peter Kigia’s song Reke Tumanwo (Let’s part ways). It’s a divorce song symbolic of the final political split-up between President Kenyatta and his deputy. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy during Jubilee campaigns in 2014. [File, Standard]

Zachary Njogu Waita, a professor of Literature at Chuka University in his PhD thesis entitled “Oral Literature and the Communication of Change and Innovations in Kenya”, analysed Agikuyu classic songs and their roles in the community. In his study, he argues that oral literature plays a significant role in, among others, political communication and socialisation among the Kikuyu community. He further adduces that songs are normative tools of politics and governance among the Agikuyu. 

Therefore, when analysing communicative politics in the Mt Kenya region, we cannot ignore 2022-specific political songs. For example, at the Sagana III conference, more than 30,000 Mt Kenya residents were served secular and gospel Benga music as they waited for their Muthamaki to show them the way. 

After Uhuru arrived, selected gospel songs played; notable among them was the classic Sarah Kimunyi’s song “Ngai Uria Turenda” (the God that we want). It went, “Lord, we have discovered your power, we have seen your mightiness…you have beautified our hearts, you are the lord that we want.” 

The ‘lord’ was functionally symbolic of the King (Muthamaki); this song was more than divine praise and worship. It was politically endearing their hearts to their Muthamaki - Uhuru. To those present, there were many Mt Kenya musicians, Benga and gospel, who performed and kept the crowd occupied with political songs. 

The 2022 outcome

Going by the provisional outcome of the elections, the Agikuyu made up their minds a long time ago. Ruto beat Raila in Uhuru’s Mutomo and Martha Karua’s Mugumo polling stations. 

However, if Uhuru and Karua were not on the side of Raila Odinga, his performance in the region could have been marginal. We also must appreciate that Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua is from the Central region. This factor enabled him to perform well in the vote-rich region.  Uhuru and Karua came late - Uhuru had introduced Ruto to Mount Kenya way back in 2013 through 2017.

In 2017, the Jubilee campaign used the then sensational Ben Githae’s Tano Tena; a song believed to have mobilised Kenyans to get the UhuRuto (an acronym for Uhuru and Ruto) re-elected for their second term. But away from Githae’s Swahili song, there was a Ruriri (the Agikuyu community) oral poetry spokesperson -  John Ng’ang’a Mwangi alias John De Mathew from Gatanga Constituency, Murang’a County. 

De Mathew’s role

John De Mathew undeniably rooted Ruto among the Gikuyu community. This renowned Benga musician, who died in a road accident on August 18, 2019, planted a seed among the Agikuyu in their language with unparalleled enthusiasm. The results of the August 9, 2022 elections can partly be attributable to his songs, which continued to release posthumously, praising Ruto and urging Agikuyu not to betray him come 2022. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto during a parliamentary group meeting at State House in 2014. [PSCU]

There has not risen his equal among the Agikuyu music artists to date. Through his music, De Mathew cemented Ruto in Central for the three years he lived after 2017.

Seemingly, he had an implied contract to sing Ruto to the presidency were it not for the crude hand of death that snatched him. 

Before 2013, the Ruriri listened to John De Mathew - he is described as a spokesperson to whom the Ruriri listened whenever he ‘spoke’ (sang).

Mr Njogu wa Njoroge, a renowned Gikuyu vernacular presenter and ally of De Mathew, confessed in August 2021 during the musician’s memorial that “De Mathew had a special message to the Agikuyu” people, and they listened to him as they would to an elder. 

De Mathew used to say, Gikuyu ngatiga kuaria muajigwa (Kikuyu people, I will stop talking to you when you hear me). Given the performance of Ruto in Central, Agikuyu may have heard De Mathew’s appeals. 

Discothèques in Nyeri play De Mathew’s 2013-2018 pro-Jubilee and pro-Ruto political songs repetitively, and the folks energetically sing along all night. The energy with which they sing such pro-Ruto political songs tells a lot about their love for him. 

How did Ruto get there? De Mathew confessed when he was alive that Uhuru, whom he referred to as ‘My brother’, introduced Ruto to him. It was clear that their relationship hit the road immediately after Uhuru promised ‘Yangu tano na tano ya Ruto’ during the 2017 elections campaigns.

Assuredly, Ruto bonded with De Mathew, who later referred to him as ‘My friend’ in his songs.

No wonder in his song ‘My friend’, De Mathew claims that on December 12, 2017, Uhuru told Raila to consult ‘William’ if he needed anything from Mount Kenya come 2022. That is probably why, after 2017, De Mathew had a line-up of songs that promoted Ruto in the mountain ahead of 2022. For example, his song ‘My brother’ was a 2018 reaction to the handshake between President Uhuru and Raila. 

In the song, he celebrated that Raila had ‘come home because there would be peace in the country. However, he urged Uhuru to remind Raila that the Gikuyu must first pay the debt they ‘ate’ from ‘My friend’ before considering him (Raila). It is a message he also drummed in a more specific song entitled “Twambe Turihe Thiiri” (let us pay the debt first).

In another song, Ngoro Gitina Part II (from the deepest of our hearts part II), he thanked Ruto: “You filled our basket when it was half full, and snatched us out of the hand of our antagonist.” In this song, he continued to implore the Agikuyu community to repay William Ruto for supporting one of their own in 2013 and 2017.

John DeMathew. [John Muchucha, Standard]

What Uhuru said

During his funeral, President Kenyatta acknowledged that De Mathew’s songs “brought Kenyans together.” By ‘Kenyans’, Uhuru undoubtedly meant Agikuyu nation, in whose language De Mathew sang.

Similarly, Ruto told mourners that he met De Mathew through Uhuru. In his tribute, Ruto said he remembered John De Mathew “diligently campaigning for Jubilee during the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections” in the mountain.

Prof Njogu Waita argues that the Agikuyu community songs are instruments of politics and governance. 

Those who have watched the 1 min 15 seconds clip on YouTube entitled “Jubilee leaders dance at the Sagana III meeting” can see top-tier politicians sweating themselves out, dancing and singing alongside. 

Many De Mathew’ songs, most of which are on YouTube, continued to ask the mountain people to consider Ruto come 2022. 

 -The writer is a lecturer in the School of Music and Media at Kabarak University